Monday, March 9, 2009

With a Little Help from My Friends

Yesterday was another beautiful day, and then in the evening I had a choir rehearsal, and got prolonged drinks afterward, and it was all very nice until I woke up this morning. Thing is, I'd promised myself to kick off a new workout routine today-- why today, I don't know, but it has to be SOME day, right?-- and I had a 6:30 am date with the gym. Specifically, the pool. Oh, I did my stupid laps, but grumpily so. Then I trudged to work in the wettest, grossest snow you've ever seen. To put it mildly, I have been in better moods before than I am now.

Whatever. With a little help from the Beatles, this day is bound to improve. Why not listen to that adorable song that Ringo sings on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Everyone loves that song. Even me.

It's easy to forget how good "With a Little Help from My Friends" actually is. It's damned catchy, now that I'm listening to it again. I love that relentless beat-- it reminds me of the Sesame Street theme song. In a very positive way, I mean.

But even though the song is fun and sweet, it seems like the rest of the world is trying to make me hate it. Just yesterday evening, I saw a commercial that used a craptacular cover version of this song in it, and it made me irate. I don't remember what the commercial was for-- perhaps a bank or a hotel or a SHOE or something-- but just its existence there enraged me. And you know what? I HATE the Joe Cocker cover (is that guy capable of, like, WRITING a song? or only rearranging perfectly awesome songs into 6/8 like that's cool or something? seriously) and I HATE that it became the theme song to The Wonder Years and got attached to all the turbulent boomer melodramatics of that show.

Argh. Clearly I'm in such a bad mood that not even Ringo is shaking me out of it. Focus, Meg! Okay, here's something happy about this song: it's one of the very last ones that John and Paul actually sat down and wrote together. In the early years of their partnership, they used to write "eyeball-to-eyeball," as John called it, regularly, and learned together everything they knew about music and songwriting. But almost by the time they got famous they were doing so less and less, more frequently writing on their own and then asking the other for feedback or to fill in blanks. That's why the most renowned Lennon-McCartney collaborations are songs like "We Can Work It Out," which is really a Lennon song and a McCartney song melded in a perfect union.

But to write a song for Ringo to sing on the album that they must have already known was going to be revolutionary, Paul and John got together to mess around on a piano and hammer this out just like in the old days. The story of them writing the song is well-documented in Hunter Davies' authorized biography, The Beatles, so we're allowed into one of the more harmonious moments of what seems to have been, at its best, an enthused and intimate songwriting partnership.

The result is a song clearly just for Ringo, with a very small vocal range (Ringo's range isn't huge; apparently it took lots of cajoling from Paul to get him up the octave on that last note) and a self-deprecating lyric that plays into Ringo's aw-shucks image. It's also one of the least mucked-about-with tracks on Sgt. Pepper. Ringo's got a fantastic drumbeat with some great soloistic moments that belie his vocal self-deprecation. Paul is having a huge amount of fun playing his characteristically amazing bass line, George gets in some good guitar jibes, George Martin is solid on the Hammond organ, and John, who I think is just singing backup, does so admirably. But that's pretty much it-- no tape loops, no orchestras, none of the glitz surrounding much of the rest of the album. Just a great band playing damned well.

See, I'm already in a better mood-- and I haven't even talked about the lyrics, which are some of the most underrated John and Paul ever wrote. They're played for laughs, but they're incredibly maudlin, and the justly famous line "What do you see when you turn out the light?-- I can't tell you but I know it's mine" is straight up eerie. I hear the questions as coming from voices in Ringo's head, questions that he asks to reassure himself that he IS loved, by these friends he keeps singing about. But even they can barely get him by, it seems. I don't know-- I feel like alienation and that feeling of discomfort in one's own skin are handled here with a wry smile that's so artful, and so true. (Maybe that's why I hate to hear it covered-- every cover I hear is missing the deep sadness that informs this song and makes it so much more than an exercise in camp.) Of all the members of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, it sounds like Billy Shears has the very loneliest heart.

"With a Little Help from My Friends," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous


  1. Far and away the best song written for and sung by Ringo. I love the call and response aspect of the song, the whole rhythm it creates. Infectious. Shows what strength can be achieved with an emphasis on vocals and simple music. You mention using the song for an ad. Don't you hate that? Ripping off our culture to sell something. I remember when Nike used Revolution ages ago. It upset Paul greatly, and he said something to the affect that the song was about revolution not selling sneakers! Too bad the Beatles lost their catalogue. Of all the reasons to dislike Michael Jackson, top of the list is his going around Paul's back to buy the Beatles catalogue when Paul was about to regain ownership. But, i digress. I imagine i will be humming With A Little Help From My Friends or singing it in my head all day today. And, you know, that's not a bad thing.

  2. Yeah, Beatles songs in commercials make me murderous. Did you see that news story recently that MJ is going to leave Paul right to his songs in his will or something? I thought that was very big of him. Harumph.

  3. I did not see that news bulletin. I'm sure Paul is head over heals grateful for that gesture. Ha! BTW, i hated that song (not to be named in this post) that they did together.

  4. I think of this song as representing some of Paul's best decisions on bass. It's tasty, but not overbearing. Don't get me wrong, I normally like the overbearing stuff, too, but it can be a little more than the song calls for. It's not hard to imagine George stewing over some of Paul's lines on Something. (Maybe there's even a scene of it in Let It Be? I've never seen it.) But here, the performance isn't the least bit much, while still being totally Paul.

    Oh, and can't we accept Joe Cocker's version, much the way we would look at a cute nephew as he ate paste? Nice enough, just nowhere near the level of our boy.